Antigone, Redux

I’m co-hosting a discussion series on the great books over on the Interintellect, and we have two “sessions.” We do the same 15-book syllabus, but we have two groups staggered across a month: we discussed The Iliad with Group 1 in January, and then with Group 2 in February, and so on.

What this means, practically, is that my cohost and I discuss a book with one group, and then, after a month, with the other group. We’re a couple of books into the syllabus now, and I’m starting to observe a pattern: in the month between discussions, I find myself thinking about the book in the back of my mind, and making new connections.

I think this is what Harold Bloom et al. are talking about when they say that The Classics are enough books for a lifetime. A close reading of the 150-or-so books that make up the bulk of most of the “great books” lists would, in fact, take most of a lifetime. Mortimer Adler said that these books would “grow with you,” and this was what he meant: the books change between readings, and you change between readings, and the books say different things to different people at different times. Obviously, all books say different things, and nobody is the same person they were before, but I’d argue that a lot of books just don’t have all that much to say to us.

In any event, returning to Antigone for a second. On first reading, it’s obvious that the characters of Creon and Antigone are in conflict, but I don’t think I realized the extent to which they’re diametrically opposed, and that their loyalties (Creon to the state, Antigone to the gods) are precisely inverted. In between the first and second group discussions, I read Thomas Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Foster maintains that we can only hold space for so many characters in our brains, and that secondary characters (I think he specifically cites Patroclus as an example) often exist mostly for plot purposes — to push the main character and the story along.

I don’t know if I buy that entirely (I’ve also written a little bit about why I’m skeptical of Foster’s book), but it makes sense in the context of Antigone. The play is, as I’ve said elsewhere, one of the strongest examples of civil disobedience that I’m aware of, but I wonder if both Creon and Antigone are one-dimensional characters. The counterargument here would be that Creon changes his mind, but a counterargument there would be that he has to, to fulfill the tragedy.

Putting a pin in that question (I’ll continue noodling on it, and may write more), we also had a lively discussion on what I’m terming the “Antigone problem” — when what’s perceived to be the right thing to do is at odds with the law. Examples cited include Les Mis and the Snowden episode!

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